Rodney Whitaker was in middle school when he told his parents that he’d one day move to New York and become a famous bass player like his idol, the late Paul Chambers. The Whitakers, hardworking blue-collar folk, were more than a little taken aback. No one in their family had ever played an instrument, much less dreamed of becoming a star by doing it.
“They said, ‘Who is Paul Chambers and how are you going to support yourself playing the bass?’” Whitaker says. “My parents couldn’t figure out why I liked jazz. To them that made no sense because my father liked rhythm and blues and my mother liked country music.”
Well the bassist did move to New York and he did become a jazz star. And to see a Whitaker performance is to see a man moved. With eyes closed, with the instrument resting against his body, it’s as if he’s having an intimate conversation with the low notes, with the gut-deep tones, his fingers nimbly caressing the strings as if sliding on melted butter.
He’s accomplished a lot in his 37 years, having played on roughly 115 albums in addition to releasing five as bandleader (Children of the Light; Hidden Kingdom; Ballads and Blues; Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow; and Winter Moon).
Now Whitaker is back in Michigan where he’s an associate professor at Michigan State University and fronts the Professors of Jazz, a popular quintet of faculty members including pianist Rick Roe, drummer Randy Gelispie, trumpeter Derrick Gardner and saxophonist Diego Rivera. He’s also the director of the Civic Jazz Orchestra at Orchestra Hall.
Whitaker bucked familial tradition to succeed, and became a family man himself; he’s married with six children. His pop, who’s deceased, was a 9-to-5 guy.
“My father didn’t understand jazz,” Whitaker says. “To him it just didn’t make sense being a musician. In fact, one of the last things that he told my wife was, ‘You know at some point you’re going to have to make Rodney get a real job.’”
As a dreamy teen bent on becoming a pro bassist, Whitaker joined the Civic Orchestra for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and attended the Blue Lake Music Camp, performing in Europe twice. In the early ’80s, he participated in saxophonist Donald Washington’s youth jazz ensemble called Bird/Trane/Sco/Now, which included saxophonists James Carter and Cassius Richmond. Washington had an impact on Whitaker. He had everything the bassist wanted: He was a working jazz musician supporting a family and living in a large house.
Washington too saw something in Whitaker.
“There were a lot of kids in the group who were good, but Rodney was one of the most serious ones, and he kept going,” Washington says over the phone from Minneapolis, where he now teaches and plays music.
Raised on Detroit’s East Side, Whitaker is the youngest of eight children. He got his musical start on the violin and switched to bass in middle school. Whitaker didn’t own a bass then, couldn’t afford one, so he used a loaner from his music teacher. A few years later, Whitaker purchased his first four-string — a second-hand acoustic number he got from bassist Jaribu Shahid with $800 he saved from local gigs.
Around this time, a neighbor named Charles Brown hipped the budding bassist to jazz, telling him he could, with work, become part of Detroit’s rich legacy of bassists. Brown’s records and advice changed Whitaker’s life:
“He gave me a record that had Paul Chambers and Ron Carter on it. You know they were Detroiters. That made me fall in love with jazz. Then I fell in love with being part of a legacy. You know, as an African-American child, if someone comes up to you and says you can be a part of a legacy — what that meant to me was these guys were from Detroit. From that point on I wanted to be like Paul Chambers.”
Others with whom Whitaker confided didn’t share neighbor Brown’s optimism. His counselor at Martin Luther King Jr. High School gave him the old you’re-throwing-your-life-away-on-music homily, saying musicians were a dime a dozen.
Whitaker then, of course, dived into music even deeper.
“I didn’t have a contingency plan,” he says. “I wanted to be a bass player. I just knew somehow that everything that I would do with my life would come from playing the bass. I just knew that.”
In 1990, the 22-year-old Whitaker hit New York and soon replaced bassist Robert Hurst, another Detroiter, in a quartet headed by alto sax man Donald Harrison. Whitaker also did a four-year stint with star trumpeter Roy Hargrove.
Then, in 1994, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis offered the bassist a cushy, high-profile job with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Whitaker declined.
“I have to admit that I turned him down because I was scared. He was like the Miles Davis of our generation. I regret it.”
Two years later, Whitaker quit Hargrove’s band and began freelancing, and when Marsalis hit him up again, Whitaker was ready.
“I just went for it. I just had to get over the first experience of playing with him because he was like a hero to me.”
Whitaker traveled the world with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, appearing in magazines, performing at the United Nations for Secretary-General Kofi Annan and accompanying classical vocalist Kathleen Battle at the Kennedy Center.
But there were times when Whitaker and Marsalis went at it. Whitaker admits that his big mouth would get him into trouble, and he didn’t always agree with Marsalis’ decisions concerning the band. He says he criticized the leader, not to his face, but behind his back. Then once, during a contract dispute, he publicly criticized Marsalis and promptly got the boot.
While away from the orchestra, Whitaker started a combo called Foresight with fellow New York musicians and released his first album, Children of the Light, which featured mostly Detroit musicians.
Six months later, Marsalis reconsidered his hasty decision and rehired Whitaker, doubling the coin that was initially offered when the contract negotiations soured. Although Marsalis and Whitaker butted heads occasionally after that, they always respected each other’s work, and today they’re friends, Whitaker says.
After six years of being away, Whitaker was tired of commuting from hotels in New York to his home and family in Detroit. In 2002, he left the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and accepted a jazz studies job at Michigan State University. Whitaker says that Marsalis has helped him raise money for his various programs at MSU.
In addition to expanding the jazz program there, Whitaker performs throughout Michigan with the Professors of Jazz, playing a mix of original songs and classics. Last year, they released their debut, The Third Floor.
“Music isn’t just about playing with celebrities,” Whitaker says, looking at his career thus far. “You have to develop a vibe wherever you are. I worked with these people every day, and they are like my brothers.
“I’ve been blessed,” he says. “I sit back and laugh thinking about some of the people that I’ve played with. Especially when I’m interacting with my students and they ask me what it was like playing with Dizzy, Clifford Jordan and Tommy Flanagan.”
It could easily be assumed that one day someone will ask his students how it was learning from bassist Rodney Whitaker, a kid who turned an obsession with the bass into a career.
Bassist Rodney Whitaker and his Professors of Jazz at MSU will be performing two shows with members of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, at 8:30 pm and 10:30 p.m., Thursday, April 28, at the Jazz Club inside the Max M. Fisher Music Center (3711 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-576-5111). Charles L. Latimer writes about jazz for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]